The fact that Washington is a real place and not a state of mind always came home most forcefully for me around Joe Robert. He grew up here, attended St. John’s College High School, bounced around as a young amateur boxer and nearly punched himself into serious legal trouble. And then he made it big in real estate, achieving the kind of success that takes your breath away: beautiful house, private jet, fancy friends, everything that people dream about, the things that often detach people from where they started in life.
But the opposite happened with Robert. The more successful he became — the more he traveled abroad to Russia and the Middle East — the more he stayed rooted in the real Washington where he had grown up. He started “Fight Night,” an old-fashioned “smoker” where people paid big money to act like wise guys, puffing on cigars and chatting up the hostesses while watching boxing legends and wannabes. It was a retro fantasy — and it worked (and raised a huge amount for charity every year) because of the animating presence of Robert, who was himself a kind of retro fantasy.
I guess every town has someone like him — a big, handsome guy who succeeds on charisma and good luck, and by taking the risks that scare other people off. He was our local hero: the tough D.C. kid who made it — and then started a whole new life raising money for good causes and giving his own money away.
He called his charity “Fight for Children,” and you knew that, like a character in a Charles Dickens novel, Robert had been marked by a childhood that had sometimes been painful and unhappy. Roberts escaped his darkness — he was one of the sunniest people you’d ever want to meet — and as much money as he made in his business, he gave even more back.
I met Robert when I was The Post’s business editor in the 1990s, and he was one of the city’s rising business elite. We became friends after I left that job, and we traveled together to the Middle East as part of a group organized by Business Executives for National Security. I’ll never forget the trip over, when during the long flight across the Atlantic, Robert began telling his unvarnished life story, and his seat-mates followed suit. We traveled around Iraq on that trip, and the generals were overjoyed to see Robert arrive — not least because he had a box of the finest cigars for each of them.
Joe’s son was serving in the Marine Corps then — he went in as an enlisted man, faithful to his father’s determination to work your own way up in life — and Joe practically adopted the Marines, en masse. He organized a big concert for them at Camp Pendleton, with help from his friend Quincy Jones and others in the glitzy entertainment world of Los Angeles. But the secret star of that extravaganza was the D.C. boy who made it happen.
Here’s a last example of how Robert stayed anchored in his community, even as he became a global figure. One of his friends was Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates. It was Robert who urged Sheikh Mohammed to send his bright chief of staff, Yousef Otaiba, to Washington, where he’s now among the city’s most influential ambassadors. Robert could have asked for anything from his U.A.E. friends, but here’s how he chose to use his connection: In 2009, the U.A.E. made a $150 million donation to the Children’s National Medical Center, just a few miles from the neighborhood where Robert grew up.
Robert struck people as the luckiest guy on the planet. Then in 2009, he was diagnosed with an inoperable form of brain cancer, and people wondered if his luck had changed. But it hadn’t. Through every month and day he had left, Robert stayed faithful to his friends and family — especially his mother, Aimee; his sister, Christine; and his two beloved sons, Joe III and Luke — and kept giving back to the community that had nurtured him. He was that rare person who figured out what mattered and then held onto it tight.